Monday, February 25, 2008

Can We Have Duties to Nonconscious Entities?

Hi there. I just finished a paper for my Environmental Ethics class, and I figured I'd post it here in case anyone is interested in reading it. I'm really not sure what I think of it, or if it's any good. I'm not as happy with it as I usually am about the work I turn in, but I didn't really love the topic, and I sort of wanted to be done with it. For anyone interested in the idea of intrinsic value or in environmentalism, though, it might be worth taking a look at. Without further ado...


Our moral duties are inherently rooted in the idea of intrinsic value. It would be meaningless to talk about what we “ought” to do if our aims reflected nothing valuable, and we do not generally think ourselves to be morally bound to our mere tastes. Morality comes into play only when we recognize a kind of value inherent in a certain thing, which demands consideration and respect. But while this account should be relatively uncontroversial in itself, its vagueness masks a great deal of disagreement regarding the nature of intrinsic value, and the kinds of things that can “have” it. One rather contentious question is whether or not nonconscious entities (e.g., trees, rivers, mountains) can have intrinsic value. In this essay, I will examine this issue and conclude that while these entities can indeed have intrinsic value, it is of a different kind than the intrinsic value inhering in conscious beings.

Generally, when we talk about intrinsic value, we suppose that this value exists by virtue of some objective property of the intrinsically valuable object. And perhaps the most intuitively obvious property to identify as a source of intrinsic value is the quality of being a living, experiencing thing. In his essay, “The Case for Animal Rights,” Tom Regan writes:

…we are each of us the experiencing subject of a life, each of us a conscious creature having an individual welfare that has importance to us whatever our usefulness to others. We want and prefer things; believe and feel things; recall and expect things. And all these dimensions of our life, including our pleasure and pain, our enjoyment and suffering, our satisfaction and frustration, our continued existence or our untimely death—all make a difference to the quality of our life as lived; as experienced by us as individuals.

Clearly, if wanting, preferring, believing, feeling, recalling, and expecting are necessary capacities in an entity with intrinsic value, then nonconscious entities are out of the running; Regan writes, “The idea of nonconscious beings having desires, wants, etc., at least in any literal sense, seems plainly unintelligible.” But Regan wonders if nonconscious entities can have a good of their own which we should respect for its own sake.

In his essay, “The Good of Trees,” Robin Attfield argues:

There is no need to hold that trees have unconscious goals to reach the conclusion that trees have interests…The growth and thriving of trees does not need to be regarded as a kind of wanting, nor trees as possible objects of sympathy, for us to recognize that they too have a good of their own.

He continues, “…I do not see the justification for holding that it is not in the interest of plants to flourish. Truistically, they are unaware of their interests: but even creatures with cognition are often unaware of theirs, whether they are flourishing or not.” If Attfield is right, then perhaps we could indeed say that trees and other nonconscious entities have intrinsic value in a similar way to conscious beings.

Is Attfield’s account satisfying? In Regan’s discussion of the source of intrinsic value, the entire focus was indeed put on distinctly conscious sorts of interests, and Attfield makes a fair point in saying that even beings with cognitive capacities are not always conscious of their interests. But I am still hesitant to accept the idea that a tree can have interests.

It occurs to me that when we talk about preserving or advancing interests, we suppose that we are bringing something about for the sake of the being whose interests we are preserving or advancing. It seems to me that nothing can be done for a tree’s sake. A tree is not what I would consider to be a “subject,” or more abstractly, a “mental substance,” and it is difficult to see how an entity which is not a subject can have its own “sake.”

A tree is constructed in such a way that certain things will preserve or advance its “tree-ness,” while other things will detract from or eliminate its tree-ness. For example, sunshine and water are “good” for a tree, and fire is “bad” for a tree. And if we introduce fire to a tree, we might bring it about that the tree’s ability to continue to exist as a tree will be destroyed. But in the same way, there are certain things which are “good” or “bad” for a wine glass. Soft, cool environments are great for wine glasses, while hard, fast moving objects are really bad for them. If I throw a rock at my wine glass, it will no longer be able to fulfill the functions of a wine glass; it will be reduced to its constituent parts, and its essence will be lost. But the wine glass’ wine glass-ness is not valuable for the wine glass’ own sake; a wine glass is not a subject. The same thing seems to apply to a tree.

It will not help to point out that a tree can repair damage to itself, or move around obstacles to reach the light. The tree does not desire these things, nor does it choose to do them. If I fill my computer’s hard drive with viruses, its functioning will be severely compromised. But my computer does not have an interest in continuing to function. It too falls short of being a subject, and the fact that it does not have such an interest seems like it can be explained by reference to its not being a subject.

Does this mean that nonconscious entities can not have intrinsic value? I do not think it does. I think it just means that their value must be of a different sort than the value inhering in conscious, experiencing subjects. In her essay, “Duties Concerning Islands,” Mary Midgley offers a clue as to how we might work towards such an alternative conception of intrinsic value. She writes that to think of duties concerning nonconscious entities, “…is not necessarily to personify them superstitiously or to indulge in chatter about the “secret life of plants.” It expresses merely that there are suitable and unsuitable ways of behaving in given situations.” Midgley takes the focus off of the nonconscious objects in question and places it on the action of the agent. This opens up a number of possible ways to think of nonconscious entities as having moral standing.

For one thing, we can consider an action involving a nonconscious entity to be inappropriate if others are harmed by it. For example, I might do wrong if I needlessly chop down a beautiful tree, even if I could not be said to be harming the tree’s interests, because perhaps you enjoyed looking at tree. My action would have served no great purpose to me, and it would have made you significantly worse off. In cutting down the tree, I would have made the world a worse place for humanity.

But it might be objected that here I do not invoke the idea of intrinsic value; plain old personal taste would seem to explain this situation perfectly well. In his book, Theory and History, economist Ludwig von Mises wrote, “All judgments of value are personal and subjective. There are no judgments of value other than those asserting I prefer, I like better, I wish.” And if this were true of our valuation of the tree, then we would be going against the idea mentioned earlier that intrinsic value must reflect a property inhering in the valued object. Intrinsic value, in other words, must be founded on something more than mere taste.

Mises disputes whether such a foundation is possible. He writes:

“The unfortunate propensity to hypostasize various aspects of human thinking and acting has led to attempts to provide a definition of beauty and then to apply this arbitrary concept as a measure. However there is no acceptable definition of beauty but “that which pleases.” There are no norms of beauty, and there is no such thing as a normative discipline of aesthetics.

If there is no property in nonconscious objects which demands our consideration and respect, and our feelings towards them reflect only our subjective tastes, then we would be committed to rejecting the possibility that these entities have intrinsic value. But is it really true that our evaluations of certain things do not reflect any describable “norm” of beauty? Surely many of our preferences reflect our individual tastes, and cannot reasonably be said to reflect any intrinsically valuable properties in the objects of our preferences. As John Stuart Mill wrote in his essay, On Liberty:

No one, indeed, acknowledges to himself that his standard of judgment is his own liking; but an opinion on a point of conduct, not supported by reasons, can only count as one person’s preference; and if the reasons, when given, are a mere appeal to a similar preference felt by other people, it is still only many people’s liking instead of one.

But on some level, it seems absurd to suggest that the Grand Canyon is not inherently the sort of thing which is valuable to people. I would find it difficult to accept an argument that Niagara Falls does not objectively have the capacity to inspire awe and wonder in human beings. These sorts of things seem beautiful in fact; if someone did not agree, I would feel rather comfortable saying that they were, in some sense, “wrong” or “mistaken.”

If there are things which have the objective capacity to inspire powerful positive evaluations by people, then their destruction would seemingly make the world a “worse” place in a substantive sense. And committing such “wasteful” destruction without good reason would seem like an unsuitable way to behave, thereby capturing Mary Midgley’s above-mentioned intuitions. Can we say, then, that we have a duty not to damage or destroy nonconscious entities if they possess an inherent capacity to rouse certain kinds of reactions in people? I think we can.

It might be objected that this phrasing of the duty seems anthropocentric; our duties are not to the nonconscious entities at all, but rather to other individuals. But this is not necessarily so. I do not respect the nonconscious entity because it will please other people; I respect it because it possesses the capacity to please people, and is therefore valuable in itself.

I am satisfied with this conclusion. I have established that nonconscious entities can be intrinsically valuable, and that this value indeed reflects objective qualities inhering in them. Further, I have shown that the intrinsic value residing with nonconscious entities has a fundamentally different source than the intrinsic value we attribute to conscious beings, and that this value does not correspond to any notion of interests held by the nonconscious entities. Perhaps most importantly, I believe that this conception of our duties towards nonconscious entities reflects our intuitions about this matter. Much more still needs to be said about the significance of the intrinsic value discussed here, especially in terms of its “weight” in moral considerations, but such a discussion would go far beyond the scope of this paper. For now I will be satisfied with the conclusion that nonconscious entities can have intrinsic value which does not insist on their having interests or being morally equivalent to conscious entities.


afruff23 said...

Just because somebody values something, that does not make it have intrinsic value. This still falls under the subjective theory of value.

For instance, you say that conscious beings have intrinsic values. Of course, this does not hold true when somebody commits suicide as that person did not value a conscious being (e.g. himself).

It is for this reason that theories of value are deficient for explaining ethics. For an ethical theory to hold true, it must be universally applicable, which is impossible in any "values" system.

So how do we judge an action ethical?

It sounds dehumanizing (and I'm sure you've heard it before) but the answer is once again: property rights. Who can legitimately exert control over something? If an owner can be deduced, then all actions objectively affecting said property in a manner not to the liking of the owner can be deemed unethical.

Danny Shahar said...

I'm familiar with the view that all rights are property rights, but I'm intrigued by your suggestion that property rights are not grounded in any concept of intrinsic value. Most libertarian accounts of property rights that I've heard of are predicated either on the idea that people are ends in themselves, or that human happiness (which is valuable in itself) is best promoted by the recognition of libertarian-style rights. That is, that there's something objectively desirable about a society where property rights are respected.

I wonder, do you generally think of yourself as a contractualist?

Nasikabatrachus said...

Danny said:

If there are things which have the objective capacity to inspire powerful positive evaluations by people, then their destruction would seemingly make the world a “worse” place in a substantive sense. And committing such “wasteful” destruction without good reason would seem like an unsuitable way to behave, thereby capturing Mary Midgley’s above-mentioned intuitions. Can we say, then, that we have a duty not to damage or destroy nonconscious entities if they possess an inherent capacity to rouse certain kinds of reactions in people? I think we can.

Perhaps I'm not getting your whole point, but it seems you haven't taken into account the fact that various people can have various reactions to the same thing. Someone might view the Grand Canyon one day and be awestruck. The next day, they might get stranded by a broken bone somewhere in the Canyon, and, after being rescued, utterly revile the very same view. I know I like the monument to Crazy Horse that is at this moment being blasted into a mountain, but it is not unimaginable that someone else might find it hideous.

In other words, there's no intrinsic reaction to these things ingrained in the universe. Consequently, it would seem a great logical error to say that such things have intrinsic value.

Of course, even if we grant the premise that there is intrinsic value in such things, or even that there is intrinsic value in "positive" feelings, there's still the matter of enforcement. To prevent someone from chopping down a beautiful (unowned) redwood tree in the middle of some (unowned) forest, we would have to use some form of physical force. If we insist on this force, it would in all probability escalate to the level of lethality. Indubitably, the unfortunate logger, who we'll say for the sake of this discussion is not infringing on anyone's property by attempting to cut down said tree, does not feel very good about this.

Add to that the intuitively quite offensive idea that we are allowed to attack other people for using their property or homesteading property for the sake of our own enjoyment of the object in question, and the argument seems very shaky indeed.

I find the territory we get into when we start talking about "Duties to Islands" rather creepy indeed.

Of course, if I've misunderstood you at all, please correct me.

Danny Shahar said...

I do agree that there's a difficulty to be found when certain individuals don't find certain "beautiful" objects to be beautiful. But I think that objection can be raised to anything to which we generally attribute intrinsic value. For example, I've encountered quite a few people who think that it's completely irrational not to want to be plugged into Nozick's Experience Machine. Does that mean that there's nothing intrinsically valuable about actually having experiences? I'm not sure. But it seems odd to say that it's completely subjective. Do you see what I'm getting at? I'm not sure I can be more precise than that, though.

The second part of your point seemed to question the implications of my view of intrinsic value for property rights. I share your concerns on that subject, and started to address them in another post, which you can find here:

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